Thursday, August 26, 2010

Elephants in the Room

I think one of the most shocking things for me in the aftermath of my brother's suicide is the number of people in our community, even close friends, who have experienced the loss of a family member or someone they knew to suicide, but have never told anyone about it.

Suicide--or any mental illness for that matter--is a stigma in my community (as it is in many communities). Things are quickly and quietly swept under the rug, excuses are made, people move on. But in that cover-up is the implicit idea that a suicide or a mental illness is somehow the fault of the family, and it's just so shameful to talk about that it's better not to let anyone know.

It was never a question in my mind that we were going to tell people what happened. I come from an incredibly loving family, and we all loved my brother very much. There wasn't anything we did or didn't do that caused this tragedy. Mental illness, like any other illness, unfortunately sometimes results in death. My brother was sick, and he died because of his illness. The circumstances may have been different than someone dying from cancer, but it was an illness just the same.

During shiva, an old high school teacher of mine said to us: "I hope you know how brave you are. There are too many shiva houses in this community with elephants in the room."

I won't say it made me feel better, but it did reaffirm my resolve to be open and forthright about what happened. If you can't talk about it, you can't heal, end of story. My friends and my community have been nothing but supportive, with never the slightest inkling of "wow, what was wrong in that family?" I hope that my family's openness about mental illness and my brother's untimely death gives strength to anyone else who may need it.

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